1876: A Winter's Tale

Posted on: March 18, 2020


[This Mountain Profile essay originally appeared in Alpinist 69, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 69 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

Ines Papert at the Glacier des Pelerins in front of the slopes of Mont Blanc during her attempt at a historical reenactment of Mary Isabella Straton's first winter ascent, with two guides, in 1876. [Photo] Thomas SenfInes Papert at the Glacier des Pelerins in front of the slopes of Mont Blanc during her attempt at a historical reenactment of Mary Isabella Straton's first winter ascent, with two guides, in 1876. [Photo] Thomas Senf

JANUARY 29, 1876: A small party emerged from the Grands Mulets Hut into the quiet night. The air felt heavy with cold, and the beams from their lantern cast a dull yellow glow against the fog. The wind made a gentle hum as it rippled over crevasses and bulges of ice. Perhaps Mary Isabella Straton searched for a thermometer, wondering how the temperature compared to that of her previous attempt. In all the decades since Jacques Balmat and Michel-Gabriel Paccard first climbed the mountain during the summer of 1786, no one had yet completed a winter ascent.

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In a chapter of an 1895 book coauthored with her husband, My Climbs in the Alps and Caucasus, alpinist Mary Mummery recalled a common attitude of male climbers of the era: "The masculine mind...is, with rare exceptions, imbued with the idea that a woman is not a fit comrade for steep ice or precipitous rock, and, in consequence, holds it as an article of faith that...she should be satisfied with watching through a telescope some weedy and invertebrate masher being hauled up a steep peak by a couple of burly guides." And yet, by 1876, women had already been involved in four of the significant winter attempts on Mont Blanc. At that time, relatively few alpinists of any gender had even contemplated the ascent of a high mountain during the coldest months of the year. As the historian Ronald Clark wrote in An Eccentric in the Alps, "the very idea of climbing while the upper peaks were thickly covered in snow was considered both dangerous and devoid of pleasure and value." Nonetheless, in early January 1876, American climber Meta Brevoort—who participated in first winter ascents of two other major Alpine peaks, the Jungfrau and the Wetterhorn—also attempted to reach the snowy apex of Mont Blanc. Her party turned back in a whiteout after they'd spent a night at 600 meters from the summit, sheltered from the blizzard in a canvas tent.

Straton had hired two Chamonix guides, Jean Charlet and Sylvain Couttet, to aid in her ascent, as well as two porters—Michel Balmat and another whose name was unrecorded—to carry additional gear. The sun had just begun to crest the horizon as the party trudged along the steep bank of the Grand Plateau. Snow crunched under their feet while they wove their way unroped around hidden cracks in the icy surface. The unnamed porter let out a small gasp and disappeared into a crevasse; the others soon gathered around the crack in the ice and pulled him out.

Jacques Balmat (left) and Michel-Gabriel Paccard. [Artwork] Bacler d'Albe and Marc-Theodore Bourrit, respectivelyJacques Balmat (left) and Michel-Gabriel Paccard. [Artwork] Bacler d'Albe and Marc-Theodore Bourrit, respectively

The climbers continued to inch along the slope. When Straton paused, she noticed that the injured porter had sat down on the snow. Haggard and bleary eyed, he seemed ready to fall asleep. The group accompanied the porter back to the hut, and he returned safe to town the next day. One day later, the remaining climbers set out again before sunrise from the Grands Mulets, determined to reach the summit this time.

The air was clear, and the light of the moon splintered across the drifts. Reams of ice glinted on the icy dome ahead. Great cornices curled over the ridge. The snow appeared soft and velvety smooth. As they crested the first slope, wind whipped over the ridge, flinging fine crystals, like grains of sand, at their cheeks. The cold stole into their thin gloves, crept up their leather boots and numbed their toes. Straton paused to rub her hands vigorously with a mixture of snow and cognac to stir the feeling back into her fingertips. "We all said that if it had not been our second attempt we should not have persisted," Straton recalled in a letter to J.P. Farrar.

Down in Chamonix, crowds gazed through their telescopes at the white summit, searching for the outlines of the climbers among the snows. Couttet imagined the conversations of onlookers: "They want to succeed or die trying," he told Charles Durier, who printed his remarks in a history of climbing on the mountain, Le Mont-Blanc. "I do indeed believe that Mademoiselle Straton had made up her mind."

By 3:00 in the afternoon, Straton, the guides and Balmat stood on the top. Down in the valley of Courmayeur, the world was coated in white. "The view was magnificent beyond all anticipation," Straton wrote to The Times. "I had made the ascent three times during the summer, but not until the 31st of January had I seen it to perfection. The immense amount of snow on the Italian side added much to the grandeur of the scene."

On their way down, the evening light set the distant peaks ablaze with bursts of purple and gold. The party slept another night at the hut before they returned to Chamonix the following day. A crowd greeted the climbers. A band played triumphant music. Fireworks shot from the town square. As Straton made her way through the clusters of people gathered in front of the Hotel des Alpes, spectators erupted in applause.

Reports in the journal of the Club Alpin Francais soon filled with praise. In the biannual report from the Savoie climbing club, the secretary noted that all other first ascents by its members that year were "only insignificant walks alongside the superb feat of Miss Isabella Straton." Similarly, the Chambery section called the climb "a glorious feat in the annals of the Club Alpin Francais," adding that, "above all, it gives the greatest honor to the intrepidity of Miss Straton." That November, Straton and her guide Charlet married. They both took the last name Charlet-Straton, and their partnership continued across even more ascents.

Much later, reflecting on the history of climbing on Mont Blanc, Durier uttered a simple but poignant conclusion: "Women are capable of everything."

The 100-year old boots alpinist Papert borrowed from a museum collection for her March 2019 attempt to re-create the first winter ascent of Mont Blanc. [Photo] Thomas SenfThe 100-year old boots alpinist Papert borrowed from a museum collection for her March 2019 attempt to re-create the first winter ascent of Mont Blanc. [Photo] Thomas Senf

[This Mountain Profile essay originally appeared in Alpinist 69, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 69 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

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